Like the ripples when a stone is tossed in water, the impact of well-lived lives is more obvious close up, but they are far-reaching, if less easily seen, as time goes by.
The late Russ Brown, my former boss as the owner of the Cortez Newspapers who died in May, was one such person. He had a positive influence on many of his fellow travelers, and most certainly on my own journey.
So this is my goodbye and many thanks to him, with one personal anecdote that shows just what a kind and generous person he was.
A job offer at his papers – the Cortez Sentinel and Montezuma County Journal – is what brought me here, where I’ve now lived more than three decades, the first of which spent working for Russ as a reporter and columnist. Fresh out of J-school at the University of Southern Colorado, where I attended as what was then gently referred to as an “alternative (old) student,” I was looking at a probably bleak future, since middle-aged cub reporters were not in great demand and print journalism was even then starting a gradual decline as “social media” crept into our lives like a chronic head cold.
Employed – temporarily I hoped – as a ditch-digger in Pueblo, I’d spotted a tiny help-wanted ad in the Pueblo Chieftain that ran for one day seeking a person, who, as then-editor Byron McKelvie told me during the job interview, could “hit the ground running,” which meant being able to churn out copy and opinion pieces along with two other reporters to fill the considerable news holes of the thrice-weekly papers.
Mac, who seriously hated to interview applicants, as I later learned, briefly perused my clips from the school paper and those I’d written as an intern, and hired me in about a half-hour, causing me to erroneously congratulate myself for impressing him so quickly. I was to start in a few weeks, and returned to Pueblo to wrap up my life there.
Several days later I got a call from Mac. It seemed Russ was a bit more dubious about his prospective new hire, since Mac had asked me almost nothing about my background – like, was I a convicted felon, or did I have other undesirable qualities that might reflect poorly on the papers’ credibility?
No, I told Mac, I’d never done hard time, although I wasn’t being totally forthcoming, since my past was a little checkered here and there.
After that phone call, I was formally hired and arrived in Cortez full of anxiety, living in a motel room while I saw if I could make a go of it.
Of course, I had little idea of just how conservative a community Montezuma County was, and my weekly liberal opinion pieces on such seemingly benign topics (ha, ha) as gun control and the war on drugs soon generated outraged letters to the editor demanding I be run out of town or at least canned.
But these seemed to amuse Russ more than anything. He would occasionally give me a few words of encouragement as I settled into my new routine and gained a little confidence.
Then one day as I was passing his office, he called me in and handed me some documents in an envelope, saying only that he had no use for them.
Inside were some old court records. It seemed one of my severest critics had doggedly researched my past and discovered I’d been busted for marijuana during a much-earlier attempt at higher education. Roger (we’ll call him that, since it was his name) had ferreted this out and sent the information to Russ, certain this would end my job at the paper.
No way – Russ never even asked me for details. He had by then seen that my reporting was accurate and my columns were actually being read, though not always loved.
It was easy to tell that he genuinely wanted me to succeed. I hope I served him well.
Russ wasn’t a reporter himself, but he loved and stood up for journalism.
On May 29, 1998, when Cortez Police Officer Dale Claxton was gunned down and killed and two other law officers were seriously wounded, it was huge news that drew attention nationwide. The Journal/Sentinel were publishing three days a week.
When three suspects in the shootings were identified, the announcement came just before one of our “off” days. It meant that other papers and media, such as the Denver Post, would have this news, but we wouldn’t be able to publish it until a day after them. (Newspapers weren’t yet on the Internet.)
A few of us reporters talked it over and I was assigned the task of approaching Russ to ask him to do something very unusual: publish a special edition the next day. There wouldn’t be time to get many ads to pay for it; it was just something that would be done in the public interest.
He said sure.
And so we came out with an extra (you’ve heard of newspaper extras in old movies – “Extra, extra! Read all about it!”). It may have the last one ever published in this country.
Russ was a special guy.
David Long is a co-owner of and writer for the Four Corners Free Press.